History 301: Milliners thrived in early Indianapolis

By CONNIE ZIEGLER, Contributing editor

Long before Indianapolis became known as the capital of motor car racing, it was known as the capital of millinery. In fact, the first milliner arrived in the city in the 1820s when the young city was a seven-year-old settlement carved out of the forest with stumps studding the dusty dirt streets. And a look at the history of millinery here can also offer a glimpse into other aspects of the social history of the capital.

The unrefined condition of the new state capital did not deter Henrietta Cobb from setting up shop here in 1827, according to the Indianapolis Gazette, which printed an advertisement for the “Milliner and Mantua maker” on July 31. “Miss Henrietta Cobb, late of New York” had commenced her business in the home of Samuel Goldsberry on Pennsylvania Street “where she will make and repair bonnets and dresses of all descriptions, in the newest styles, on reasonable terms.”

From that day until at least 1909, when The Indianapolis News reprinted that original 1827 ad, the city was “never without at least one milliner,” The News reported.

In February 1848, a “Mrs. Young, milliner and dress maker” invited the “attention of ladies to the new and elegant patterns of bonnets, which she is now and will be constantly making,” according to an advertisement in the Indiana State Sentinel. Mrs. Young had a large “selection of elegant Silks, Satins, Velvets, Ribbons, Feathers, Flowers, Laces.”

By 1870 there were dedicated millinery shops in the city. One was Conaty’s, located at 12 S. Illinois St. It had the city’s only French milliner, “recently from Paris,” according to The Indianapolis News in an ad published on Dec. 30. This French hat maker was “fully conversant with all the latest Parisian styles”. The ladies of Indianapolis must have been ooh-la-la-ing about the tres chic chapeaus they could now order.

Elegant headpieces know as fascinators, along with less fancy hats, were in demand at the end of the 19th century, and several retail and wholesale companies began to employ their own milliners. Twiname and Co., located at 73 Massachusetts Ave., took to the help-wanted ads in The Indianapolis News in September 1881 to secure its own trendy hat maker.

Although their talents made them highly employable, few milliners were mentioned by name in the local newspapers of the day. One exception in 1882 was Mrs. Anna Greer, whom The Indianapolis News deemed worthy of a news story in October because her apartment at 42 S. Illinois St. was burgled. The thief carried off $130 in cash, two valuable bracelets, and several silk dresses – items valued more than $500, a sum equivalent to more than $14,000 today. This suggests that millinery was a well-paying profession in 19th century Indianapolis.

In 1887 the Indianapolis Journal reported that an unnamed “milliner ‘just from Paris’ brings the pleasant news that small bonnets are to be even smaller.” Just a year later, an illustration in the Indiana State Sentinel indicated that small bonnets had already gone out of style. The illustration showed two women, one of whom seemed to be wearing an entire dove on her hat; the other woman had sprouted a garden amongst the large ribbons on hers.

Wasson’s department store ran half-page advertisements in the Indianapolis Journal in 1898 for a sale of millinery that the store had purchased from the Boyd, Besten & Langen store, previously owned by “Mrs. M. J. Wright who was the successor to Mrs. Frankmoelle, long known as one of the most artistic and high-class milliners in the city.” Wasson’s bought the entire collection including “bewitching foreign headwear of the most expensive sort, together with the best productions of New York and Mrs. Frankmoelle’s own clever conceptions.” The most expensive hats could be had for $8.98 (a little more than $315 today).

By 1902, women in Indianapolis could hire a visiting milliner to come to their homes and decorate untrimmed hats, clean and retrim an old hat or make a new one. According to an Indianapolis News article on Sept. 25, “the visiting milliner usually begins her work by charging $1 to $1.50 a day.” Adjusted for inflation, this amount equals between $34 and $51, quite a bargain considering the price of a custom-made hat.

The Indianapolis News reported that by 1902 Indianapolis was known as a “millinery center.” The article on Aug. 26 reported that millinery was a $1.25 million annual industry in Indianapolis. Little wonder, then, that the city attracted milliners from all over the country to the four wholesale houses in the city, all of which offered two openings a year showing the latest styles.

African-American hatmakers made the local news in 1904 with an exhibit of their confections at Flanner Guild on Feb. 22 that year. It was the first exhibit by a group of about 35 young women tutored by Miss Lydia Robinson, a graduate of the Booker T. Washington School at Tuskegee, Alabama. Beulah Wilson made the “prize hat,” valued at $10, of white chiffon and white silk poppy petals. Miss Robinson said that because “there is no place in the city for colored milliners” the young women were training to become visiting milliners. The Indianapolis News reporter who covered the show ended her article with these equal opportunity words: “With such hats as these … there is no reason why colored women may not open a millinery shop and supply hats of the best make and latest styles.”

It is not surprising that both Black and white women sought out millinery as a career. It was one of few positions that allowed women to make a decent living      on their own or add substantially to their      family income. Milliners also occupied a  creditable social position in the city. They were considered higher in social status than women who worked in some other types of “women’s work,” such as cleaning, cooking or retail work.

A combination of good income and higher social status seems to have made milliners attractive as marriage (or remarriage) candidates, also. An article about the state’s divorce rate in The Indianapolis Star on April 26, 1908, claimed that women who were either milliners or stenographers had the highest chances among women of remarriage after a divorce. The article did not offer any reasons for this statistic.

We can draw our own conclusions about why milliners were luckier than most others at securing a second chance at love.  Whatever the reasons, history demonstrates millinery was a respected and sought-after career for women in Indianapolis. A lesson to us all that good income and a pert hat will always be a winning combination for a woman, whether she chooses to marry, or remarry, or not.